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HALIFAX — Jewish groups said they were astonished that an educated school trustee running for the New Democrats in the federal election reportedly said she was unfamiliar with one of the Nazis’ most notorious death camps.

Leaders in the Jewish community reacted with dismay on Thursday after it was revealed that Alex Johnstone, the NDP candidate in Hamilton, Ont., referred to fence posts at Auschwitz as being phallic on Facebook in 2008.

To them and many others, her claim to a local newspaper Tuesday that she didn’t know about the infamous concentration camp was more galling than the comments themselves.

“It’s disappointing that you still seem to have people who are living in some cocoon of a lack of general knowledge,” said Jon Goldberg, executive director of the Atlantic Jewish Council.

“It’s just an ignorance that’s surprising for someone who’s running for office.”

Shimon Koffler Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, was equally incredulous at the admission and said it may signal the need for greater education about the Holocaust.

Both Fogel and Goldberg say they saw no malice in Johnstone’s remarks, but stressed the importance of elected officials knowing their history so that they might work to prevent it from being repeated.

“If we can’t draw lessons from those experiences that are going to inform the way we respond to crises, then we are just playing into that old cliche of history repeats itself through neglect or ignorance,” he said from Ottawa.

“We’re more than surprised that that wouldn’t be one of the thousands of things that holds a memory chip in a federal candidate’s memory bank, which means that some of the onus is on to make sure people are better informed.”

Johnstone and her campaign officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokesman for B’nai Brith, a human rights and anti-Semitic advocacy group, said late Thursday that CEO Michael Mostyn had spoken with Johnstone and senior members of the NDP.

“Having had a meaningful conversation with Alex about her comments on Facebook, we feel that she truly appreciates why her Facebook comments were inappropriate,” said Mostyn.

For her part, Johnstone promised to work with the organization to raise awareness about anti-semitism.

“I personally pledged to work with their experts to raise awareness about the ever-increasing need to combat racism, discrimination and anti-semitism,” she said in the joint statement. “I intend to continue to learn about the Holocaust and speak out against hate in all its forms.”

Johnstone had earlier issued an apology on her Facebook page after her comments surfaced via a satirical web-based publication. She conceded that her remarks were inappropriate, but not meant to cause harm.

The Facebook posting from April 2008 featured a friend’s photo of part of Auschwitz’s electrified fence and its curved, concrete supports at the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

“Ahhh, the infamous Pollish (sic), phallic, hydro posts,” Johnstone commented underneath.

“Of course you took pictures of this! It expresses how the curve is normal, natural, and healthy right!”

After the remarks came to light, Johnstone said in an interview with the Hamilton Spectator that, “I didn’t know what Auschwitz was, or I didn’t up until today.”

A social worker by training, Johnstone is vice-chairwoman of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, having been first elected as a school trustee in 2010. She has a Master of Social Work degree, according to her campaign biography.

People commenting on her Facebook page expressed disbelief that someone with a strong background in education might not have known the role Auschwitz played in the decimation of six million Jews in the Second World War.

“How the heck can a person get to your age and not know what Auschwitz was! Your ignorance is mind boggling,” wrote one person. 

Another was more direct: “I would submit that you need to visit a Holocaust museum ASAP, otherwise you may need to step down to avoid further issues.

“You seem nice, but…not knowing what Auschwitz was? Wow…I’m sorry, but that’s not acceptable in 2015.”

Follow @alison_auld on Twitter

Alison Auld, The Canadian Press

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